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Plastic playground: the Park District gets into recycling

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From a distance Schreiber Playground Park, on the far north side, a block north of the intersection of Devon and Ashland, looks much like any other play lot. Next to a tiny field house, low black-and-gray retaining walls surround a large sandbox, two playground areas, and a couple of flower beds. On a warm late-summer morning, hordes of kids congregate around the water fountain, drinking and splashing.

But look closer. The walls keeping the sand and the wood chips around the play equipment aren't made of wood, as they used to be; nor are they made of concrete, which is what they might at first look like. No, the streaked and veined "timbers" that make up the walls are plastic.

The black and gray timbers are made of milk jugs and soda-pop bottles. Lots of them; about 300,000 of them, in fact. And some of them may have come from the same children who are playing there today.

Schreiber Playground Park is the first beneficiary of a new Park District program that may help alleviate Chicago's garbage crisis. It is a program, remarkably enough, that establishes Chicago as something of a pioneer and leader in recycling technology. The idea, simply, is to turn millions of throwaway plastic milk jugs and soda bottles into raw materials for park construction.

The Park District began collecting jugs and bottles at its field houses at the end of June. (Donors should wash the bottles and remove caps and rings; for the location of drop-off points, call 294-4550.) The plastic that is collected is picked up weekly and trucked to a facility at 135th Street and Indiana, where it's sorted and compacted into bales weighing 750 pounds. The bales are then sent to Hammers Plastic Recycling Corporation in Iowa Falls, Iowa, where they are shredded and reformed into "timbers." They come out black unless pigment is mixed in, but adding pigment adds to the cost.

The resulting material is versatile and durable, says Leonard Lauricella, the Park District's supervisor of landscape maintenance and one of the coordinators of the recycling project. He beams with pride as he surveys the Schreiber playground. "The plastic is going to last 15 to 20 times longer than the wood perimeter walls that are currently made out of Wolmanized wood. I think the life expectancy of the Wolmanized wood is something like 30, 35 years, but then there's still a tendency for it to decompose, to warp, to splinter. Here you don't even have to wash it off. You take a hose and rinse it all off; if there's graffiti you can clean it off with a household detergent. So in the long run we're really saving."

"My side of it is we don't have the kids getting splinters into their butts," says Dolores Lee, who supervises Schreiber Playground Park and four other area playgrounds. "And if they try to carve into it with a knife, the knife breaks before they can cut into it. If you have graffiti on wood you have to sand it off, and that makes the playground equipment more dangerous. This you can wash off with soap and water. It makes my life easier."

More important may be the effect the program has on Chicago's garbage problem. The city's landfills will likely be filled sometime in the early 1990s. It's estimated that about 8 percent of the nation's landfilled garbage, by weight, is plastic. But that 8 percent occupies perhaps 15 percent of landfill volume, since much plastic garbage is in the form of containers--a fifth of all plastic waste in the U.S. is packaging. Empty bottles and jugs contain a lot of air--which means the landfill will be filled that much sooner if bottles are discarded there.

"We're taking stuff that would find its way into a landfill and bringing it back," says Lauricella. "It's also offsetting the cost as far as the tipping fees, which is, I think, about $120 a ton right now. Just look at the volume of plastic jugs. Here you have a landfill--if a guy brings just a little truckload and throws it into the landfill, it's gonna stay there for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it chokes off this valuable land. And here we are, able to take this valuable space and keep it open. When I walk somewhere now and I see a plastic jug, I think, 'Oh, take it to a Park District field house.'"

No one maintains that keeping plastic out of landfills is a bad idea. Indeed, beverage bottlers and distributors, traditionally not very friendly toward recycling measures, have backed the plan. Some of the plastic bottles sold in Chicago supermarkets now bear little logos that read "Plastics on parks. When empty, remove cap. Return to any Chicago Park District fieldhouse."

George Brabec, president-elect of the Illinois Association of Recycling Centers, says he is suspicious of the motives behind the bottlers' and distributors' enthusiasm. "For years we couldn't get them to print on glass that it's recyclable. They're finally doing it, but it took years of lobbying to do that."

In the past, beverage bottlers and distributors have favored the use of plastic over glass bottles, and they have opposed measures--such as bottle-deposit ordinances--that would promote the use and recycling of glass. It's easier to produce new plastic bottles, than it is to collect, wash, and reuse glass ones. But the Park District's recycling effort requires no extra work on the part of the beverage industry.

For the most part, environmentalists like the idea of reusing plastic that's around now, but they don't like the idea of using plastic in the first place. A recycling effort that turns bottles into timbers doesn't address one of the cardinal problems of plastic usage: because the bottles are not recycled into other bottles, the quantity of new bottles produced isn't lessened. Those bottles are manufactured out of petroleum, with all its related problems, from the Exxon Valdez spill on down.

"The crux of the matter is, why increase our dependency on petroleum-derived products and containers when there are other containers available that are in fact recyclable and reusable?" asks Sue Lannin, the solid-waste coordinator for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. "When I buy my laundry detergent, I buy it in cardboard boxes."

Chicago's plastics-recycling program is perhaps the most ambitious in the country; it's certainly the largest program run by a government body. "It's the first time that a municipality has actually joined with a private company to develop something like this," says Lauricella.

Jerry Powell, editor of the trade publication Resource Recycling, calls the Park District project a commendable program. "Park districts are among many municipal bodies that often don't think about waste problems. But I've seen their staff at several major recycling conferences recently diligently going over options."

Plastics recycling is an industry in its infancy. According to a recent issue of the Neighborhood Works, only about 1 percent of the plastic waste currently produced in the U.S. is recycled. But because there are so many different types and mixtures of plastic, even a superlative effort would recycle only a quarter of our plastic waste.

The Park District program deals only with polyethylene terephthlate (PET), which is used for soda-pop bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is used in milk jugs. The two are among the most highly utilized plastic formulas. Procter & Gamble is currently testing a program of recycling both types of plastic into other bottles: the recycled plastic is used for the inside layers of new bottles, while virgin plastic is used for the outside. It's analogous to the mixture of recycled and virgin newsprint used by some newspapers. FDA regulations, though, make it virtually impossible for manufacturers to use recycled plastic in food or beverage containers.

Lauricella says the Park District hopes to collect about 1,200,000 pounds of plastic, or something like ten million bottles, this year. That's about 40,000 pounds a week. That figure hasn't been reached yet, but Lauricella says collection figures keep rising as more people hear about the program. Last week, he says, about 10,000 pounds were collected. To help promote its program, the Park-District has instituted contests: 18 bicycles were given away in a drawing open to children attending Park District day camps who brought in five or more jugs, and the winner of the next contest will win four Wrigley Field tickets and the chance to throw out the first ball at the Cubs game on September 22.

Dolores Lee says she's been filling an average of two large garbage bags a week with the plastic dropped off at Schreiber. "And if I have more than four I'll call and they'll make a second pickup."

George Brabec wishes the collection program were more convenient. "I think it's a good program. But I think the collection centers are not convenient or accessible for the public. I tried bringing plastic in myself. The field houses aren't marked for accepting it; they will only accept it at field houses that are manned and only in the hours when a field house is open. They need to have some sort of outdoor receptacles that would be more convenient."

"I had a couple of friends who went to their local parks to see whether there's any prominent display for contributing your recyclables," says Lannin. "Some of them reported back that there are, and some said no, so I guess it really varies from neighborhood park to neighborhood park. My local park, Kosciuszko Park, really has nothing on it at all. I was over there when they first announced the program, and they had a little round drum for people to throw things, in under a bulletin board where they had a little announcement about the program. And last time we went over there was nothing there at all: nothing on the bulletin board and no bin. So I talked to one of the park personnel; I had a whole big load of milk jugs to give him. He said, 'Oh, no problem,' and vanished with them downstairs. But there was nothing clearly marked; if you didn't know about the program you wouldn't bring them there."

Lauricella says signs that a professional sign painter has offered to donate should make the public more aware of the program. "If the demand is there, we'll put as many containers outside as necessary. If the demand is there, we'll put the containers anywhere."

For the time being the Park District can doubtless use all the plastic it collects. Lauricella says that there are more than 250 play lots in Chicago that are slated to be remodeled soon. The playground equipment will be surrounded with wood chips, which provide a soft surface for kids to fall on--and which are also "recycled" from trees cut down in the city. The wood chips will be held in place with a retaining wall of plastic.

Lauricella has bigger plans. "Park benches," he says. "Wheel stops. We have a boat dock out in Jackson Park. There's a type of bollard for boat tie-ups. There are picnic tables." The tables might not have the same rustic ambience as redwood, but they would be practical.

Lauricella is also hoping companies will begin manufacturing playground equipment of recycled plastic. Right now, he says, plastic timbers are 25 percent more expensive than wood. But that higher cost is worth it, he says, because the plastic timbers will last so much longer. "We're going to learn as we go along," he says. "Being part of it, while you're learning, is great. Let's say 100 years from today someone will be here asking, 'Gee, I wonder when they came up with this?' And here we are, sitting here, discussing it now in 1989.

"If we can do it, certainly small towns can do it. Now I'm getting calls from Barrington. Different park districts are starting to call--'What can we do with our plastic?' I say, 'Bring it over to us; we'll take it.' Because these other park districts throughout the state are going to have to bring it to a landfill otherwise. So they should bring it to us, and we'll take it. Certainly it would be a charitable thing for them to do. We'll tell them where to drop it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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